In an industry where winning is often everything, Gavin Makel would just as soon be regarded as a trailblazer and a pioneer.
Manchester City's managing director of women’s football is on a mission with his team to grow the game globally and to introduce standards and strategies that will accelerate that ambition.
Makel, 41, spent his formative years between football pitches and acting studios, alternately rubbing shoulders with future England internationals Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer and performing alongside future global movie stars Andy Serkis and UK TV legends Ant and Dec.
Little did he know when he was watching his brother Lee play for Newcastle United, training with three teams and starring in a popular national TV show called Byker Grove, that he would eventually follow a path that would lead him to Abu Dhabi - he helped set up City’s soccer schools - to teaching English as a foreign language, to his coaching badges and, finally, a seat at the top table of the embryonic women’s professional game.
Makel’s story is the ultimate ground-to-top-floor story - and he believes it would have been most unlikely to have happened anywhere but Manchester City.
“That is one of the great things about this club: they are willing to give people a chance. I had never dealt with a player contract or agent before I applied for the job but they saw something in me and put real trust in me. I was allowed to grow in the role. Many of us back then were starting from virtually scratch in the women’s game, including Nick Cushing the manager.
“The great thing was we got some very experienced and talented players in from the start and we all helped one another.
“We couldn’t, as a team or individuals, be where we are now if we didn’t have the support from the chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and the board. They have always had a vision to be successful. They see where opportunities to grow the game lie and the support we have had is tremendous.
“We have normalised the integration of the women’s team into the day to day of the football club. There is just football.”
The initial trench of experienced players included England internationals Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Tony Duggan and Karen Bardsley. They all took a leap of faith and became the spine of the new team and helped lay down the building blocks for the club.
Houghton, Scott and Bardsley, who have in excess of 350 England caps between them, have been integral to City's success, helping the club to a Women’s Super League title, three League Cups and three FA Cups. Just as importantly, they have changed perceptions.
“Seven years ago there was no other women’s team doing what we were doing in terms of integrating the side into a Football Academy alongside the men’s first team and the junior players and also providing them with their own stadium. It certainly helped sell the dream,” says Makel.
“People saw what we were doing as a club and knew we weren't just ticking boxes but had serious ambition for our women’s team.”
Now Makel and his backroom team have aspirations to ensure the game’s recent gains in the public consciousness are not wasted and are used for broadening its appeal and playing pool.
The women’s game has traditionally gone through peaks and troughs but not yet enjoyed the stratospheric, global growth its supporters have been hoping for.
A new broadcast deal for the WSL in England could help change that with over 50 live games planned this season, with around a third of them free-to-air on the state broadcaster the BBC.
“Sponsorship should follow,” reckons Makel. “Already businesses are coming to us and we are not having to knock their doors down. Big name brands are becoming more interested in the women’s game. They want to be part of what is going on.
“Now consistency is key in terms of fixtures - we can’t go through spells of having one home game in a month as has happened in the past.
“We also have got to be careful that women’s football doesn’t become an Olympic sport, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way to Olympic sports, I just mean that it only becomes interesting in the wider domain just for that period of time every four years.”
Player burnout is a concern. City had 14 players take part in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and, as a result, opted against a pre-season programme.
The future schedule shows no let up either. The delayed European Championship takes place next summer, before the 2023 Fifa World Cup followed by the Paris 2024 Games.
“Women players have never experienced that level of intensity of training over such a sustained period of time," says Makel. "The matches and the travel too. Added to that the game itself is quicker and more intense than it was eight or 10 years ago.
“We need to make sure we are monitoring and researching that. We also have to look after the mental health aspect and do a lot of work about careers post playing.
“We are doing lots of research as a club on these topics along with the effects of the menstrual cycle and its impact on performance. Those results will be pioneering and help everyone. We also have to put more resources as a sport into the science of football and use more data to drive decisions.”
Makel also feels there is more to be done on academy structures and scholarships so girls can plan a career. He wants more of them playing football so there are enough top players to support the expansion of the women’s game world wide.
He delights in the fact that young girl supporters are now able to pull on a replica shirt with their favourite female player’s name on the back and, more importantly, have a viable dream to one day be a professional footballer. That’s a powerful message, he argues.
If he has a fear it is that women’s football may be growing too quickly with resources stretched trying to professionalise the league. As well as upscaling commercial growth, media, academies and coaching expertise, Makel says sports science, medicine and supporter services are all areas that need improvement.
Amongst all the change and maturation of women’s football there is one thing that Makel wants Manchester City and its staff not to lose sight of. It’s non negotiable in his mind.
“Whether we win or lose I want us to be considered pioneers,” he says. “How we market our players, how we market the club and speak about it. How we respect the game. How we develop young players. How we treat players post playing career.
“I want us to continue and step up research into the female body and the impact on performance. When people all over the world are thinking about women’s football and women’s sport in general I want Manchester City to be considered a benchmark. That for me is success.
“We should always be thinking of the next pioneering step. That’s how I judge success alongside winning games.”